City with no definitive founding date can still celebrate 125th anniversary

Friday, March 2, 2012 3:32 PM
A poster celebrating Cortez’s centennial hangs in City Hall. Depending on how people identify the town’s founding date, Cortez was founded anywhere from December 1886 to October 1957.
Some women of Cortez pose for a photo in front of the old courthouse.
The Charles DuffMercantile, on the corner of South Market and Main streets; Hays Paint Store; James Morrison Mercantile are shown in the late 1890s. The site is now the corner of Valley Towers across Main Street from the Stone Block Building.
Photo taken after a fire in Cortez.
Montezuma County’s sheriff and some town founders pose for a photograph in 1892. Pictured are, top row from left, Charlie Day, editor of the Montezuma Journal; Lee Kelly, freighter; and Harry Ausburn; and, bottom row, Sheriff Sterl Thomas, Ern Guillet and Herm Guillet.
Youngsters watch a parade in Cortez.

Cortez residents can celebrate the community’s 125th anniversary this year.

Early 1887 marks the time when pioneers scraped a town together on a sage flat and a dream in far Southwest Colorado.

No. You’ve got it all wrong. Actually, the city named after a Spanish conquistador was founded in 1886.

Uh-uh. You’re both wrong. It was 1889.

Actually, it was 1902.

No — 1952.



Determining the exact date when Cortez was founded is a bit like playing pin the tail on a herd of donkeys.

The community that grew largely out of a late 19th century irrigation project has several key dates in its history, but even historians can have trouble picking one as the city’s founding date.

Local historian June Head pointed to early 1887, when settlers began to erect the first businesses and homes in Cortez. F.M. Goodykoontz erected a tent he used for a restaurant, and Maj. E.H. Cooper built the town’s first house. Before then, the “community” consisted of tents housing men working on the Dolores River tunnel that would irrigate the valley.

“There wasn’t anything but men out (of tents) shooting prairie dogs (before). …That’s why I tend to say 1887 is the date we ought to look at,” said Head, a historian with the Montezuma County Historical Society.

Ginger Graham, also a historian with the Montezuma County Historical Society, agreed that construction of the town’s first buildings is one way to identify when Cortez was founded.

“When they first opened a store, I would say,” Graham said.

A Cortez native, 82-year-old Head has collected historical information about Montezuma County for about 40 years, and she teamed up with Graham to produce four volumes of local history in the book series “Great Sage Plain To Timberline: Our Pioneer History.”

In a November 2011 column published in the Cortez Journal, Head reached back as far as 1886 to describe Cortez’s roots:

“Cortez had its beginning with that of the irrigation system platted in 1886,” Head wrote in the column. “Mr. Mack, the engineer, also laid out the plans for Cortez in 1886. Matt Hammond and Nick Krone hauled the first lumber here for the building of Cortez. It was on Christmas Day, 1886. …The men who worked on the new ditch system were sitting outside their tents shooting prairie dogs but did not know where the lumber should go. The load of lumber was dropped on the site of the old cattle round up grounds.”


Located just south of present day Cortez, the community historically known as Mitchell Springs is often referred to as the first townsite for Cortez, Head wrote in Volume 1 of “Great Sage Plain to Timberline.”

“The (new) Cortez site was out on a hill above the new ditch and no one wanted it,” a 1934 interview with pioneer Fred Taylor published in Volume 1 notes. The interview is Taylor providing his account of early days to Anna Florence Robison, who in the 1930s documented old-timers’ accounts of their pioneer lives. “Some Eastern people formed a town company and took the land up. The town company wanted to get water to Cortez, so they took eighty thousand dollars of money which should have gone into the ditches and built a flume more than three miles long to bring water to Cortez. The flume started at what was known later on as Smithville, where the Cortez lateral crosses the state highway now. The money, which was to build the Highline Ditch, went to build that flume. And, the town company took this money without any authority from the people who put up the money for ditches. Then they ran short on money finishing the Highline Ditch because the Eastern people found out what had been done and shut off the money. The town company laid out the town site and promoted Cortez.”

Dec. 22, 1886, the plat for Cortez was filed in Durango, according to Volume 1.

“That was before the counties were divided and this was La Plata County then,” Stephen J. Smith notes in a 1934 interview with Robison in Volume 1. “The Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company (known as the number 1 Company later on) was beginning to build the tunnel to bring the waters of the Dolores River through ditches to the Montezuma Valley. The Montezuma Valley Land Development Company was known as the Town Company, and both were in the charge of James W. Hanna. His homestead adjoined the town, and the large frame house he built still stands in the northwest part of the town.”


With all those hungry workers laboring on the Dolores River tunnel project to irrigate Montezuma Valley, the enterprising “restaurateur” Goodykoontz saw opportunity in Cortez. The date of Cortez’s founding sometimes centers around Goodykoontz’s business.

“The first lumber used in the building of our County Seat (Cortez) was hauled here by Nick Krone and Matt Hammond,” Mrs. Matt Hammond recounted in an article read during a 1909 old-timers’ reunion in Cortez and later published in Volume 1. “It was on Christmas Day, 1886. The roads were not laid out as well as they are now, and the town site was not very plain. So they found it very hard to locate our present thriving county seat.

“Mr. Hammond wasn’t sure where he was suppose to leave the lumber and unloaded the wagons on the old cattle roundup ground.”

A Cortez Journal article with an unknown date provides more detail.

“It is unknown whether the lumber brought by wagon on Christmas Day 1886, was for the Goodykoontz Restaurant or the Major E. H. Cooper residence,” the article states. “The E.H. Cooper residence was the first permanent building. The building for the restaurant was only temporary. Mr. Goodykoontz opened for business in January 1887 and served as many as ninety meals per day. This tent restaurant was located on the corner of West Main and South Market Streets. The residence of Major Cooper was ready for occupancy January 15, 1887.”


That fateful Christmas Day in 1886 when the first known load of lumber arrived in Cortez is a good time to mark as the city’s founding, said Linda Towle, chair of the city of Cortez Historic Preservation Board.

“On Dec. 25, 1886, a guy showed up with a load of lumber to start building,” Towle said.

Towle said she used the Christmas 1886 date based on the historian June Head’s recent column. Towle noted the city’s historic preservation board did not meet and formally declare Dec. 25, 1886, to be the city’s founding date.

“We rely on people like June Head and people who have done research over the past decades,” Towle said about the historic preservation board’s efforts.

The historic preservation board is working with the Cortez Cultural Center to conduct a series of events this May to honor Cortez’s quasquicentennial. The groups picked May because it’s National (historic) Preservation Month, Towle said.

Although Towle pointed to Christmas 1886 as a date for Cortez’s founding, she also acknowledged it can be difficult to pinpoint a community’s founding date.

“There isn’t a day when they cut the ribbon and shot off the cannon or anything,” Towle said. “It (the community) evolved, and that is very typical of settling the West.”

The Cortez Cultural Center began celebrating Cortez’s 125th anniversary in fall 2011 and will continue with events planned for May 2012, said Shawn Collins, the cultural center’s executive director.

At the center’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner last fall, volunteers donned T-shirts that read “Cortez, Colorado, 125 Years, 1886-2011,” but Collins said the cultural center hasn’t defined a founding date for Cortez.

“There was no firm definition,” Collins said. “It depends on how you choose to define it. Was it the date it was originally platted? Was it the date that Jack (James) Hanna …pulled into town on Christmas Day in 1886? Some people say that was the day people started to build Cortez.”


“On the corner of Main and Market, the first business opened on Jan. 1, 1887,” Head wrote in her November 2011 Journal column. “A tent restaurant was erected by Mr. F.M. Goodykoontz, who was the chef. As high as 90 meals per day were served in this 12 x 14 tent restaurant. By this date there were hundreds of teams and men at work on the new ditch system. This was hailed as a boon to the employees of the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Co., who patiently stood in line at mealtime and waited their turn at the limited table space of the tent restaurant. There was a lot of business for restaurants and livery barns — even if there was no water!

“Major E. H. Cooper, a Union Veteran, erected a house for his home and real estate office that opened for business on Jan. 15, 1887,” Head’s column notes. “This was the beginning of Cortez and many men who had served in the Union forces were the first businessmen in the new town.”

Some of Cortez’s first permanent buildings began to show up along 1888 and 1889, said Graham of the Montezuma County Historical Society.

An 1890 map of downtown Cortez includes First, Main and North streets; Montezuma Avenue; and Chestnut, Market and Beech streets.

A few of the buildings that occupied downtown Cortez at the time are the Congregational Church, Pearly Wasson’s Livery, the post office, Harrington’s Drug Store, a meat market, the “Stone Block,” Montezuma Valley National Bank, a grocery with the Montezuma Valley Journal behind it, Thompson’s Store, McEwen’s Livery, the courthouse and jail, and Minter’s Blacksmith.


City Clerk Linda Smith didn’t point to one date when asked when Cortez was founded. She pointed to at least five, and she noted no one date completely defines the community’s founding.

A description of key dates that city clerks have compiled over the years follows:

“Cortez was platted in 1886. Cortez became the county seat when Montezuma County was formed April 16, 1889. Cortez was incorporated as the town of Cortez on Sept. 27, 1902. Cortez became a city in February 1952. Cortez adopted their home rule charter in October 1957.”


Pick your favorite date for when you believe Cortez was founded. Or pick all the dates. Perhaps the celebrations for Cortez’s 125th anniversary that started last year and will continue this year also could stretch to 2082.

Reach Russell Smyth at russells@cortezjournal or 564-6030.

Key dates in Cortez’s history

Some key dates in Cortez’s early history follow:

Dec. 15, 1886 — Cortez is platted by M.J. Mack, engineer for Montezuma Valley Water Supply Co.
Dec. 22, 1886 — Plat for Cortez is filed in Durango. This was before Montezuma County was formed out of the western portion of La Plata County.
Dec. 25, 1886 — Nick Crone and Matt Hammond haul the first load of lumber used to build Cortez.
Jan. 1, 1887 — First business opens on the corner of Main and Market streets. F.M. Goodykoontz, a chef, erects a 12- by 14-foot tent restaurant and serves as many as 90 meals per day to hungry men working on the new ditch system.
Jan. 15, 1887 — Maj. E.H. Cooper, a Union veteran, builds a house for his home and real estate office.
June 21, 1887 — U.S. post office established in Cortez.
April 16, 1889 — Cortez becomes county seat when Montezuma County is formed out of the western portion of La Plata County.
Sept. 27, 1902 — Town of Cortez government is incorporated.
February 1952 — Population grows enough for Cortez to become a city.
October 1957 — City of Cortez government, a home rule charter, is formed.

SOURCES: June Head, historian, Montezuma County Historical Society; “Great Sage Plain to Timberline: Our Pioneer History,” Volumes 1 and 3.